Eid ul Fitr, the primary festival of Muslims worldwide, should not be seen disconnected from the fasting month of Ramzan (or Ramadan) which precedes it. Ramzan is the ninth month of the Islamic or Hijri calendar, and Eid is celebrated on the first day of the tenth month called Shawwal. Literally meaning the 'festival of the breaking of the fast', Eid ul Fitr brings unbridled joy and celebration all over India and the world, especially with the variety of delicious food items that are unique to the festival. This period of fasting followed by celebration may be compared to the 40 days of Lent fasting among Christians concluding with Easter, or the nine days of Navratra fasting among Hindus followed by Dussehra or Durga Puja, besides others. But in its festivities and the camaraderie it creates, Eid-ul Fitr surpasses other such festivals since it’s practically the only and perhaps the most important festival in the entire Islamic world. Even though Eid ul Azha, the second important festival (associated with animal sacrifice) is known as the bigger Eid as it lasts three days, Eid ul Fitr often acquires larger importance, and affords bigger reason for joy, as it comes immediately after a tough month of fasting. Eid was started in Arabia at the time of the Prophet Mohammad (Peace Be Upon Him) when he migrated from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE. The practices of fasting, prayers and sacrifice existed in Arabia even in pre-Islamic days and Mecca was the centre of pilgrimage since Prophet Abraham or even earlier. The Prophet Mohammad initiated a new belief system in Arabia that rejected idol worship and polytheism, and since he abhorred many undemocratic practices that had emerged in the previous centuries, almost the entire way of life of his fellow citizens was changed for the better. Eid or other festivals may have existed in Arabia earlier, but now they were made to acquire a new identity—that of a reformed religion. There are accounts that show that on Eid the Prophet allowed little girls to sing songs with tambourine-like instruments (even though Islam is seen as abhorring the use of music), and a kind of sweet pudding was made with flour, milk and dried dates that may have been the precursor to the today’s popular 'sevayyan' or vermicelli.
The month of Ramzan is also special because the Holy Quran started being revealed to the Prophet during this month. Hence, along with the daylong fasting, most Muslims also recite (and memorise) the Quran in a variety of ways during Ramzan. The fasting in Ramzan is not simply an abstinence from eating or drinking. It also means restraining sexual desires, sinful thoughts, fighting, lying and all other sins or unethical practices. Fasting is supposed to cleanse one’s body and soul, and bring tranquillity to the mind. Although Ramzan’s 30 days fasting is compulsory for all Muslim adults, there is relaxation for the sick, the elderly and those travelling. If you skip a fast during Ramzan, you may either keep it later or feed the poor in its lieu. But fasting during the month of Ramzan earns special merits for the faithful. Generally, Muslims all over the world like to break their fast with dates followed by fruits, fried savouries, sherbets, or sweetmeats. Since Eid ul Fitr is also the breaking of the month-long fast, one is supposed to eat something sweet in the morning before going for Eid prayers. The date of Eid ul Fitr or Ramzan, and for that matter the entire Islamic calendar, is decided by the sighting of the moon—a new crescent moon heralds each Islamic month which could be 29 or 30 days long. Since a lunar calendar is about 10-11 days shorter than the solar Gregorian calendar, the dates for Eid keep shifting back by 10-11 days each year. Moreover, these are decided by the actual, physical sighting of the moon rather than astronomical calculations. Thus, the actual date of the starting of Ramzan or the Eid is always decided the night before when the moon is sighted in a particular locality. In fact, Eid is never celebrated the same day in the entire world since the moon phases are seen slightly differently in different part of the world. In Saudi Arabia and USA for instance, Eid ul Fitr is celebrated about two days prior to the day it is celebrated in India and Pakistan, and so on. According to religious stipulations, the sighting of the moon also has to be authenticated by more than one man. In fact, committees are set up in different regions to confirm the moon sighting.
What do Muslims do on the day of Eid ul Fitr? Muslims all over the world start the day of Eid ul Fitr by attending a large congregation of special prayers comprising of two raka’ts ('action of bowing'). The Eid prayers are normally held in large mosques or special open grounds called Eid Gah (the place of Eid) in the locality. There is no azaan ('call for prayers') for Eid prayers, but they are supposed to be held as early as possible in the morning after sunrise. The Eid prayers also comprise of 7 special takbeer (raising the hands to the ears and saying Allahu Akbar, 'Allah is Almighty') which are unique to Eid. The prayer is followed by a khutba (sermon) by the imam (otherwise delivered before Friday prayers) and then a dua (supplication). The listening of the khutba is essential for all attending the prayers. Since most rituals or norms of religious occasions such as Eid are remnants of how the Prophet performed his actions, most people go to the Eid gah or mosque taking one way and return by another route. It is a sunnah (Prophet’s tradition) to wear new or clean clothes along with some perfume before going for the Eid prayers. Men also chant special prayers (Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar...) while walking towards the mosque. Women and children can also visit the Eid prayers although they do so only in some localities. In some places like Kashmir or Kerala, most women attend the Eid prayers along with men. Soon after the prayers and dua are over, people get up and greet each other by hugging them (often thrice) and shaking hands. Soon after returning from Eid prayers, people visit each other’s homes to greet the family members. They often carry sweetmeats or homemade vermicelli. An important aspect of Eid (and in fact the end of Ramzan) is the giving of charity called ‘fitrah’. Those who can afford it are supposed to give a small percentage of their income to the poor and needy on behalf of each member of their family. In fact the very idea of fasting was to save the food from one’s own consumption and give it away to the needy. And giving charity on Eid is meant to help those who can’t afford the celebrations. Within the families, there is also the tradition of giving of Eidi or monetary gifts to children by the elderly. Children always look forward to receiving Eidi which they can spend on their own (de Tassy 1997: 79). In pre-colonial times, poets and courtiers even recited eulogies for the kings and nobles on the day of Eid to be rewarded with khil’ats (gifts, especially honorific robes) by the ruler (Umar 1993: 309). In some Muslim families the children wrote messages of greetings and salutations (often in verse) on pieces of paper with colourful borders and presented these to their elders to be rewarded with money.
If one looks at the history of how Eid was celebrated in India, one finds many interesting accounts from the last few hundred years. The Mughal courtier Hamiduddin Lahori gives the following description of the Ramzan and the Eid of 1628 during the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan: Every evening during the month of Ramzan the Sadr, Musavi Khan, introduced a party of the poor and the needy into his majesty’s presence, by whose orders they were relieved of want and distress. Thirty thousand rupees were thus, given in charity in addition to the daily allowances and perpetual grants of land.... On Saturday evening, Ramzan 30, 1037 (June 3, 1628), the appearance of the crescent moon greeted everyone and the joy-bands were played. The following morning (the Eid day), the princes, nobles, courtiers and other state-officials assembled in the audience hall to offer their felicitations and greetings to the emperor. He went in procession to the Eidgah to offer his prayers. Gold was scattered among the people during the royal progress to and from the Eidgah. N.L. Ahmed, ‘Some Feasts and Festivals at the Court of Shah Jahan’ (Sharma 2008:241–45) Another courtier of Shah Jahan, Munshi Chandra Bhan Brahman, describes the royal procession to the Eidgah in an interesting way:
The spectacle on the Eid day when the emperor goes out from the palace to the Eidgah for public prayers is one of great pomp and pageantry. The whole city in honour of the occasion is ‘en view’. The houses and the bazaars are all richly decked with brocades of innumerable shades and colours. Crowds of people from the neighbouring towns and villages swarm the capital, eager to have a glimpse of their sovereign. Under the supervision of the masters of ceremony and pageantry, the royal route and the neighbouring grounds are exquisitely arranged and ﬁnely laid out. The whole route is lined with troops of mounted and infantry matchlockmen, rocket-throwers and standard-bearers, who in their gay costumes present a ﬁne spectacle. In every house and at every comer side-shows are arranged and the atmosphere is thick with the sounds of trumpets, bugles and clarions. Amidst such scenes the emperor rides out to the Eidgah on a richly caprisoned horse or mounts a royal elephant in an elaborate procession, which is at once solemn and gay. During the royal progress, vast sums in gold are showered among the populace. The Mir Tuzaks wearing their turban crests and holding jewelled maces in their hands and the Yasawals (servants of parade) with gold and silver staffs are on duty on the route. In the procession’ may be seen a large canopy in front of the state-umbrella, where the members of the princes’ staffs with jewelled ﬂy-ﬂaps in their hands are in attendance. The nobles come next followed by the imperial ensigns. The royal conveyances like the ‘takht-i-ravan’, and the palanquins ornamented with jewel and enamel work and covered with paean-curtains mark the tail of the procession. The contrast is complete when the emperor after all this picturesque pomp and lavish pageantry reaches the Eidgah, where in common with his humble subjects he bows low his head on the ground. The reciter of the Khutba on naming each imperial title receives robes of honour and awards in cash from the emperor. From Chahar Chaman-e Brahman by Chandra Bhan Brahman, British Museum manuscript, or. 1892 (Sharma 2008:242–43)
Hence, in the Mughal period, Eid was an occasion of a lot of generosity from the royal court. One should also not ignore the popular print culture related to the festival, especially from the late 19th and early 20th century. Eid was an occasion when a large body of popular printed literature or documents of consumption in Urdu were produced in India. Almost every popular journal, newspaper or magazine brought out its special 'Eid Number' with greetings and wishes published by individuals and advertisers. Special illustrated pamphlets or chapbooks on Eid were printed to be distributed or sold. For instance, Delhi-based author Rashid-ul Khairi (born 1868) who published ‘Ismat, the first Urdu magazine for girls, wrote in 1927 an Eid chapbook titled Guldasta-e Eid ('a bouquet for Eid') containing poems, stories and religious commentaries on how Eid is celebrated by different strata of people in India as well as by important religious figures historically (Fig. 23). Being a reformist (especially known for his liberal writings on women’s issues), Rashid highlights the contrasts between how rich and poor celebrate Eid. The chapbook talks of how Eid is celebrated for instance by a Musalman fashionable khatun (a fashionable Muslim woman) who, for the typical reader of this chapbook (or the ‘Ismat magazine) might have belonged to a socially distant and 'upper' class (Khairi 1941). Other contemporary Urdu journals also emphasise sharing the Eid festivities with those who cannot afford these as a principle of Islam. The discourse of such popular literature looks rather different from the messages and iconography on early Eid cards, suggesting that different producers in Lahore, Bombay and Delhi were catering to the needs of different strata of Muslim society, even though their language is almost always Urdu. Another vibrant popular tradition of Eid greetings that evolved in India in late 19th and early 20th century was the production and use of Eid greeting cards or postcards. The mass-produced Eid cards and their movement via post originated in the colonial period with the introduction of colour printing and the postal system in India. Interestingly, the earliest Eid cards in India were actually Christmas greeting cards imported from Europe and then locally stamped with ‘Eid Mubarak’ in Urdu! Even their imagery showed European winters, churches and other symbols of Christmas. Since then, every year thousands of colourful Eid cards have been printed and used by Muslims and non-Muslims to greet their family members and friends across lands (Saeed 2011). While some of these Eid cards have printed messages on them, some are also used by the senders to write personalised messages. Here is an example of a printed message on an Eid card: Dear friend. May God’s protection be with you. This Eid card is the proof that despite being far away your memory is still alive in my heart. On this auspicious day, I pray from my heart for your happiness and prosperity. Translation of Urdu message at the back of an Eid card printed by IPC Co. Bombay, circa 1940 Even though the emergence of media such as e-mail and SMS may have attenuated the entire culture of writing and posting letters and greeting cards, the spirit of Eid celebration lives on, promising us happier days with friends and family.
'Brahman', Munshi Chandra Bhan. 2008. Diwan-e-Brahman. New Delhi: Asiatic Society.
De Tassy, M. Garcin. 1997 . Muslim Festivals in India and Other Essays, translated by M. Waseem. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Khairi, Rashidul. 1941. Guldasta-e Eid. 5th reprint. Delhi: ‘Ismat Book Agency, January.
Saeed, Yousuf. 2011. 'Eid Mubarak: Cross-cultural Image Exchange in Muslim South Asia'. Tasveer Ghar, September. Online at http://tasveerghar.net/cmsdesk/essay/117/ (viewed on July 24, 2014).
Sharma, Usha. 2008. Festivals In Indian Society. 2 vols. New Delhi: Mittal Publications.
Umar, Mohammad. 1993. Islam in Northern India during the Eighteenth Century. Delhi/Aligarh: Munshiram Manoharlal.